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ABSTRACT: Hemopoiesis takes place in a microenvironment where hemopoietic cells are closely associated with stroma by various interactions. Stroma coregulates the proliferation and differentiation of hemopoietic cells. Stroma-hemopoietic-cell contact can be supported by locally produced membrane associated growth factors. The stroma derived growth factor, stem cell factor (SCF) is important in hemopoiesis. We examined the different biological interactions of membrane bound and soluble SCF with human hemopoietic cells expressing the SCF receptor, c-kit. To analyze the function of the SCF isoforms in inducing the proliferation of hemopoietic TF1 or Cord blood (CB) CD34+ cells we used stroma cell lines that differ in their presentation of no SCF, membrane SCF, or soluble SCF. We established a new coculture system using an epithelial cell line that excludes potential interfering effects with other known stroma encoded hemopoietic growth factors. We show that soluble SCF, in absence of membrane-bound SCF, inhibits long term clonal growth of primary or established CD34+ hemopoietic cells, whereas membrane-inserted SCF "dominantly" induces long term proliferation of these cells. We demonstrate a hierarchy of these SCF isoforms in the interaction of stroma with hemopoietic TF1 cells. Membrane-bound SCF is "dominant" over soluble SCF, whereas soluble SCF acts epistatically in interacting with hemopoietic cells compared with other stroma derived factors present in SCF deficient stroma. A hierarchy of stroma cell lines can be arranged according to their presentation of membrane SCF or soluble SCF. In our model system, membrane-bound SCF expression is sufficient to confer stroma properties to an epithelial cell line but soluble SCF does not.